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Portrait Avenue: Rainbow Escalator
It's not every day that one comes across a home-grown band that manages to create a unique sound. Emerging from progressive rock backgrounds, Portrait Avenue have evolved into an experimental, electronic indie sound that they can truly call their own with their recently released EP, Rainbow Escalator.
The album's opener, 'Spiral', sets the tone for the expansive album and puts the listeners in a musical trance thanks to Belal's hypnotic vocals complimented by Wadie's heavy background drumming and a strong bass line that, all together, sounds like the love child of Radiohead and Porcupine Tree. On a whole, Rainbow Escalator has an intense pull to it despite essentially sounding mellow and laid back - perhaps due to its incorporation of a variety of unconventional sounds and instruments.
Lyrically, the group shines brightest on' My Design'. As Belal croons "my own design has turned against me/broke into my space", the lyrics seem to nod to Oscar Wilde's perhaps most famous masterpiece of a novel "The Picture of Dorian Grey." The lyrics are accompanied by a rather melancholic melody, carried most impressively by the violin, which elevates the overall dramatic effect.
What makes the album quite different, in true homage to the progressive genre, is the stark differences in the temperaments it embodies. The listener is taken through a journey of moods, going from downtrodden to optimistic in a heartbeat, both musically and lyrically. Sometimes this shift in dispositions takes place within a single song as is the case with the delightfully perplexing Rainbow Ruckus. As its name suggests, the song seems to lyrically dissect a chaos of feelings, from infectious energy to draining confusion.
Tarek's keyboards take a front seat in 'Cameras to the Fall' proving the album's overall instrumental diversity. The seven-piece band cleverly steer clear of highlighting a single instrument or focusing on a single monotonous sound. What Portrait Avenue ingeniously nails is the blend of electronic effects with overall minimalism, making for an inimitable sound that incorprates hints of psychedelic rock.
One of the shortest tracks on the album is ‘DMT Song’. Created with the help of bassist/vocalist, Thundercat, it is the most vocally dense song on the record. Slow and dreamy, with high-pitched, slightly dissonant, vocals, it's a good intro to the next track, ‘The Nightcaller’. Aptly titled, this song features a groovy dance bass underneath a synthesizer melody that sounds ideal for waving your arms around on the dance floor.
‘Getting There’, with vocals by Niki Randa, is reminiscent of Massive Attack. Not only because of the elongated vocals, but the muffled bass beat and dreamy bell sounds could certainly also have spawned from the brains of 3D and Daddy G. The same goes for ‘Hunger’; a song that sounds like it was recorded underwater and also features Randa. Its spacious melody is broken up by a bridge with echoing vocals and harpsichord-like keyboards.
Erykah Badu is the only vocalist to appear on the album that Flying Lotus hasn’t worked with previously. Her vocals work really well on the African sounding track ‘See Thru To U’ - hopefully, Badu will become incorporated into Ellison’s fixed team of vocalists.
‘Putty Boy Strut’ sounds like a broken toy gone mental, with a catchy musical theme that returns in the deeper layers of ‘Me Yesterday/Corded’.
‘Electric Candyman’ features vocals by Radiohead frontman, Thom Yorke, and is a slow track with male and female vocal melodies mixed together in a way that almost sounds disorienting. Yorke’s voice is hardly recognisable, which seems like a waste considering his great, and highly distinguishable, vocal abilities.
Few artists in today’s indie scene have as prolific a back catalogue as Kurt Vile. In the space of seven years, he’s managed to release six solo albums, six EPs, and two albums with his former band The War On Drugs (who received critical acclaim themselves with 2014’s instant classic Lost In the Dream). Suffice it say, Kurt Vile has cultivated a mystique around himself that makes every release a bonafide event on the musical calendar, and the complicatedly named release b’lieve I’m goin down… is part and parcel of that.
The album’s opener and debut single, ‘Pretty Pimpin’, is a bittersweet ode to Kurt’s youth, and is a damning indictment of the façade of “hip” that many indie artists have created. Singing “I woke up this morning/Didn’t recognize the man in the mirror/ Then I laughed and I said, Oh silly me, that’s just me”, you can really feel Vile’s dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the scene. The introduction of subtle synth tones towards the end of the track gives it an almost orchestral quality, undercutting the bluesy folk-style guitar rather nicely.
The album is interspersed with smatterings of soulful neo-Americana, with the album’s second track, ‘I’m An Outlaw’, sounding a little like a modern day Johnny Cash. The layering of banjo, guitar, and electric organ harkens back to the romantic notions of driving down Route 66 with the top down. The neo-Americana style doesn’t end there, with the later track ‘All in a Daze Work’ being one of the best songs released I’ve heard in a long time. Vile’s imperfect yet beautiful vocals dance with his guitar, telling the abstract story of a damaging former love. With long parts of the song being instrumental, the sparseness of the instrumentation and vocals is haunting to say the least.
That’s not to say that the album is unrelenting in its melancholy vibe. The next track, ‘Lost My Head’, shows some slight old-school r&b vibes, with piano taking the forefront instead of guitar, and a rising dreamy synth section in the middle, this track is a testament to the diversity of Vile’s inspiration and his musical versatility, sounding like something ‘The Moody Blues’ would have released in the 60s.
So remember what was said earlier about every Kurt Vile release being an event? Well the man doesn’t disappoint; this is easily one of the best albums of the year. Not a single moment, note, lyric or beat is wasted and all these things come together to create some incredible musical moments. I cannot say this clearly enough; listen to this album now. Listen to it, and then listen to it again.